Distance and Empathy
The Use of the Third-Person Subjective Voice in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy
Submitted as the first of two theses toward successful completion of a Master's in Fine Arts degree at Vermont College of Fine Arts, 1997.
by Steve Young
Flannery O'Connor once gave this advice to young writers: "Pay less attention to yourself than to what is outside you. If you must write about yourself, get a good distance away from yourself and judge yourself with a stranger's eye and a stranger's severity." (Magee, 80)
In her own writing, O'Connor practiced what she preached. Few fiction writers wrote less autobiographically and with more severity than she. Novelist Cormac McCarthy is one of these few. Like O'Connor, McCarthy describes his characters' predicaments with a stranger's eye, and with an almost predatory zeal. O'Connor's characters are often victims of extraordinary violence. McCarthy's characters are often perpetrators of or witnesses to horrendous atrocities. Each writes from a distinct moral stance, albeit one so subtle as to be mostly invisible. This morality is never presented in abstract exposition or even dialogue, but emerges from within scene, from descriptions of physical environments and physical actions. Paradoxically, these descriptions, laden with rich detail and symbolism, are always the subjective observations of impressionable characters.
O'Connor's characters often live on the outermost edge, with no margin of safety. Salvation, if it's to come at all, requires the utmost urgency, and, in keeping with her deeply Catholic views, O'Connor often performs a kind of hurried, emergency last rites. McCarthy doesn't believe in salvation. He embraces the darkness and anarchy the rest of us secretly fear. His moral view resides in the fabric of his prose, wedded to nature and landscape, much as Kant (and others before and after him) believed that God's laws are revealed to us through Nature's laws.
The Catholic piety in Flannery O'Connor's personal life and the misanthropy in her fiction is one of the oddest paradoxes in literature. No character is immune from the lash of her bitter humor, not even children. Her characters often meet gruesome ends: shootings, drownings, gorings. But violence is only one aspect, albeit the most dramatic, of O'Connor's harsh view of the world. All her stories are peopled by the poor, the ignorant, the doomed: The old man in "The Geranium," the abandoned child in "The River," the bed-ridden consumptive in "The Enduring Chill," the emigre worker in "The Displaced Person," the tattoo aficionado in "Parker's Back," the retarded boy in O'Connor's neglected masterpiece, the novel The Violent Shall Bear it Away; the list goes on and on.
Similarly, McCarthy's protagonists are often innocents, caught up in a whirlwind of violence and strangeness. Most are very young, such as the brother and sister in Outer Dark, the unnamed boy in Blood Meridian, the teenage cowboys in All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. The exceptions -- the old man in The Orchard Keeper, the title character in Sutree, and Lester Ballard in Child of God (discussed below) -- may not be young and raw, but are crippled by their extreme ignorance or, in the case of Sutree, paralyzed by self-doubts. All, with the exception of Lester Ballard, a serial killer, are unwilling witnesses to cruelty and depravity. Unlike O'Connor's characters, few come to a bad end themselves but what they see and participate in produces the same quality of revelation. The two writers use the same technique -- extreme subjectivity offset by the distance created by the third-person voice -- to reveal their radically different moral world views.
Both writers use subtle manipulations of distance and intimacy in their narrative points of view to spectacular effect. Critics often discuss O'Connor's use of violence and black humor and her preoccupation with religion and what she called the "grotesque," all of which are thought to be tied in with her Southern Gothic "regionalism." Little attention has been paid, however, to one of the most striking aspects of her writing: the interweaving of distance and intimacy in her narrative points of view. Although she wrote extensively about her own fiction in Mystery and Manners and in her letters, collected in The Habit of Being, O'Connor never wrote explicitly of this aspect of her writing. She does not reveal why, for example, she never wrote in the first-person, even in her early experimental stories, written during her time in Iowa. Nor can we learn directly from McCarthy about his choices in narrative stance or other aspects of his style. He doesn't give interviews, lectures or even readings. Perhaps because of his desire to be a recluse, he has toiled in near obscurity for most of his life.
Although none of O'Connor's or McCarthy's stories or novels are in first-person, they consistently used another subjective voice, sometimes called the third-person limited. This point of view allows -- or forces -- the reader to share the intimate perspectives of the protagonists, certainly as much as with first-person. When the Misfit points a gun at the Grandmother in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," he is, in a literary sense, pointing the gun at us. When "the kid" in McCarthy's Blood Meridian scalps his first Indian, it is as if we are wielding the hatchet. When Bevel drowns himself in O'Connor's "The River," it is us being submerged. In McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper, Marion Sylder gets belted with a tire iron by a hitchhiker and then, in one of the most vivid and intimate murder scenes in literature, Sylder strangles the hitchhiker. When Mrs. Greenleaf in O'Connor's "Greenleaf" gets gored by a mad bull, the horn wraps itself around her and penetrates her chest in a "lover's embrace."
Moreover, in the work of both writers, we find ourselves in strange empathy with some very odd creatures, many of whom are so scabrous, uneducated and downtrodden we would pass them in the street without a second glance. Others would cause us to hasten our steps.
O'Connor frequently cited Joseph Conrad as an influence, and to a lesser extent William Faulkner, but her idiosyncratic style was, from the very beginning, almost entirely her own. There is an obvious similarity between her and Faulkner in that both were born in the South and remained there for their entire lives. Less obvious, perhaps, is the love and hate both had for their native region, which ran side by side in their fiction. Both sometimes seemed to view the South as a kind of unending burlesque. The desire to take flight is interwoven with the unwillingness or inability to actually leave, exemplified in parts two and three of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. O'Connor's sense of stuckness is revealed through her use of comedy, in stories such as "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Parker's Back." But always beneath her prose lies a great seriousness and a deep affection for her native South. Perhaps nowhere in her writing is this more explicit than in "The Artificial Nigger."
This novella, which O'Connor often cited as her favorite creation, tells the story of a poor, backwoods racist named Mr. Head. Mr. Head takes his grandson into the city for the first time because, for one thing, he wants to show the boy what "niggers" are. In the course of the story, they get utterly lost in the city. Mr. Head reveals himself to be just as ignorant and befuddled as his grandson.
On the surface, this is a simple, comic tale. Mr. Head is a fool and the story is essentially about how his foolishness leads him to near disaster. But here is how O'Connor chose to begin the story:
Mr. Head awakened to discover that the room was full of moonlight. He sat up and stared at the floor boards - the color of silver - and then at the ticking on his pillow, which might have been brocade, and after a second, he saw half of the moon five feet away in his shaving mirror, paused as if it were waiting his permission to enter. It rolled forward and cast a dignifying light on everything. (Complete Stories, 249)
The intimacy, the immediacy of these images: floorboards that look silver, a cheap pillow that "might have been" brocade, the moon "waiting" Mr. Head's "permission," then casting a "dignifying light" on what is then revealed to be the shabbiest of shacks. One can hardly imagine a more subjective or voluptuous rendering of what is in reality a decrepit physical environment. Yet these descriptions have truth and tangible reality because they arise from Mr. Head's consciousness, which for good or for ill, is our principal guide through this long and complex and masterful story. It is an example of how O'Connor weds two seemingly contradictory strands: the beauty and intimacy and vividness of her descriptive language, and the inarticulate natures of her characters. She accomplishes this through the use of the third-person limited p.o.v. The omniscient voice would not allow the extreme subjectivity of the above passage. The other subjective p.o.v., first-person, is not appropriate, either, because Mr. Head as "I" would not speak to us in that manner. He could think and feel and intuit in those images, but would not put these images into those exact words.
Cormac McCarthy uses similar techniques to get at the subjective perspectives of his inarticulate characters. Many elements of McCarthy's style are captured in microcosm in his novel Child of God, the story of a backwoodsman named Lester Ballard, a serial killer and a necrophile in extreme rural Kentucky. The narrative traces Ballard's crimes and the aftermath, when he's caught and locked up in an insane asylum.
Child of God, however, differs from most of McCarthy's novels in two important ways, both of which, paradoxically, serve to illuminate his later, more mature work. First, it contains a substantial plot. Second, for the only time in any of his novels, he makes use of the first-person p.o.v., albeit only in a couple of short chapters.
Regarding the first point -- the presence of plot -- unlike most of his other novels, Child of God tells a conventional story. In other words, there are actions, characters and situations which create on-going conflict, drama and forward motion, Aristotle's energeia. Unlike the heroes in all of his other novels, Ballard does more than meander without purpose in a stark and violent environment. He intrudes upon "normal" backwoods Kentucky life, commits his atrocities, is pursued by the law and in the end, pays for his crimes. Stalking and mass murder are explored exhaustively in Blood Meridian. But in that novel, as in most of the others, there is no sense of redemption. Slaughter is, in fact, rewarded; the more scalps the murderous band collects, the more money they receive. In Child of God, his second novel, McCarthy had yet to fully develop one of his principal themes: the amorality in most human affairs, a reflection of the amorality found in Nature. He was still beholden to Faulkner, whom he obviously revered. The minister in Faulkner's Light of August, the writer/observer in Sanctuary, are still present in the form of the Sheriff, who tracks down Ballard and puts him away. There is no sheriff or minister in any of McCarthy's subsequent novels.
McCarthy's reverence for Faulkner informs his use of language in this novel and in his others (although less and less so; by The Crossing, the connection seems more and more tenuous). Here is a typical Faulkner passage, taken from his short story "Spotted Horses." The use of language is important here because it illuminates the effect of the horses on the gullible men who end up purchasing them and then, the next day, watch helplessly as the wild horses run away:
The moon was almost full then. When supper was over and they had gathered again along the veranda, the alteration was hardly one of visibility even. It was merely a translation from the lapidary-dimensional of day to the treacherous and silver receptivity in which the horses huddled in mazy camouflage, or singly or in pairs rushed, fluid, phantom, and unceasing, to huddle again in mirage-like clumps from which came high abrupt squeals and the vicious thudding of hooves. (Faulkner Reader, 437)
Here is a typical passage from McCarthy's Child of God:
He watched the diminutive progress of all things in the valley, the gray fields coming up black and corded under the plow, the slow green occlusion that the trees were spreading. (170)
The words "diminutive" and "occlusion" have the same feel as Faulkner's "lapidary" and "receptivity," abstract, cerebral words which sound jarring in concrete descriptions of nature. Surely, one might suggest, such passages could be put more simply, more succinctly. Moreover, these passages are perceptions of physical nature by subjective observers. Ballard is a backwoods, illiterate deviant. Words such as "diminutive" and "occlusion" would never occur to him. What is going on here?
As mentioned above, Child of God contains the only sections of first-person writing in any of McCarthy's work. McCarthy's usual style is to use third-person limited, sometimes alternating the p.o.v. character from chapter to chapter, such as in Outer Dark, which contains alternating p.o.v. chapters of a brother and a sister. The "I" here is a nameless observer of Ballard, an old man reflecting upon Ballard's actions, crimes and ancestry. His observations merit a separate chapter each.
I remember his grandaddy, name of Leland, he was gettin a war pension as an old man. Died back in the Twenties. Was supposed to of been in the Union Army. It was a known fact that he didn't do nothin the whole war but scout the bushes. (80)
The use of first-person seems gratuitous. We don't care what others say about Ballard. Ballard's perverse, solipsistic world, his crimes, his solitude, matter to us far more. McCarthy himself may have recognized this. He abandoned the first-person in this novel and in all of his subsequent novels. By design or not, McCarthy's writing works best when he interprets and articulates the p.o.v. character's subjective impressions in words which he (Ballard) might not know or use but nonetheless express his mood, emotions, observations.
This applies not only to Faulkner and McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor but also to a number of other modern writers of note, such as Toni Morrison, in her later novels Beloved and Jazz, and E. Annie Proulx, particularly in Postcards.
In McCarthy's later novels, Faulkner's influence recedes to the background and his style becomes truly his own creation, unlike that of any other author, living or dead. But as with O'Connor, McCarthy always makes use of a living witness. He takes advantage of that small but crucial distance between narrator and author found in the third-person subjective voice. For example, Billy Parham, the p.o.v. character in McCarthy's The Crossing is a barely educated sixteen year-old. He would never think of using words, as McCarthy does when Billy is sitting alone on his horse at twilight, such as: "the nacre bowl of the moon sat savaged into the reefs of cloud like a candled skull." (590)
Well, maybe he wouldn't come up with those words but surely while looking at the moon on a particular night, in a particular mood, he could think or feel something very like that. If he could put it into words, that's how he would put it. Thus, the fiction writer can serve as a translator, translating these inarticulate, inchoate, non-verbal but, nonetheless, deeply felt impressions into prose.
The three most common points of view, first-person, third-person limited and third-person omniscient, each have built-in advantages and disadvantages for the fiction writer. Third-person omniscient or "authorial-omniscient," as John Gardner calls it in The Art of Fiction, allows the writer to describe the action and tell the story from the most "objective" point of view, not relying upon a single perspective to interpret events, but jumping around from character to character (156). Distance can be maintained, both regarding individual characters and events as a whole. The main disadvantage of this p.o.v. is that it implies a supernatural consciousness, either in the form of some kind of deity, who is able to see all and tell all, or the voice of disembodied memory, an often undefined consciousness that, through the use of past tense, implies that he/she/it is remembering some past event.
The omniscient perspective was epitomized by Tolstoy, with his assumption of divine grace, a kind of lofty, impersonal God watching over us, but powerless to intervene. Today the omniscient can still sometimes lift fiction above the muck and mire of individual experience. But it is ultimately based upon a questionable conceit, a God-like author who can dip down into the psyches of all the characters and put their lives in a broader, perhaps more optimistic perspective. The dilemma this conceit poses might be illustrated by the cliche opening: "It was a dark and stormy night," to which the inevitable rejoinder is: "Sez who?"
On the other hand, first-person allows the author to use the narrative voice to speak intimately of events he/she witnesses. The narrator's personality is not only inextricably woven into the story, but the unfolding of that personality is often the story itself. "I," in other words, becomes the center of the universe. At the very least, the "I" person must be present in every scene and in most first-person stories (although not all; Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby is a notable exception, as are many of the first-person narrators in Frank O'Connor's stories), events revolve around the "I" person the way the planets revolve around the sun. This creates a potential perspective problem, however, because the "I" person serves as both the main character in the story and the storyteller; the protagonist, and the narrator. "I" must describe what he/she has witnessed as well as experienced and must be a reliable enough witness to tell the story well and vividly. A long complex work in the first-person can sometimes dissolve into unenlightening narcissism, especially if the narrator claims an omniscience that is beyond the capacity of the character's personality.
Third-person limited is similar to first-person in that it's intimate and subjective, not global and objective. But there is a subtle yet profound difference between the two.
Flannery O'Connor did not always use the third-person limited p.o.v. Within a particular story she might pull the camera back to present a more omniscient view of character and scene. She also changed points of view within a particular story, so that in "The Artificial Nigger," for example, we occasionally enter the consciousness of Mr. Head's grandson. But, as mentioned above, it is significant that nowhere in her fiction can one find the first person perspective. The omniscient, when used, comes in "patches," in strategic moments, often of great importance, such as the very last passage in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
Otherwise, both she and McCarthy almost always set up their scenes so that one particular point of view character is physically present and identified. Like Mr. Head in the above passage, or Lester Ballard in the passage from Child of God, we know who it is right up front or soon after. The p.o.v. character thus serves as witness for all that follows. It is his/her impressions of a scene that we are being given. The scenic and character descriptions, no matter how elaborate, are therefore subjective, not objective in either the "omniscient" philosophical/theological sense or as a practical matter. This is crucial.
The power of this narrative perspective is two-fold: it plumbs the depths of the subjective, and yet, unlike first-person, retains a little distance. It is not the self-conscious "I," literally and figuratively, who is seeing and experiencing these things, but "he" or "she," as if the reader finds himself utilizing the eyes and ears and nerve endings of a perhaps unfriendly stranger, someone who is not trying to win us over, or trying to explain him or herself to us, as "I" always does. Even J.D.Salinger's petty, mean-spirited "I" is a friendly puppy compared to O'Connor's "he" or "she." This combination of intimacy and aloofness is unsettling, and it's an important reason why her fiction is often so deeply disturbing, beneath the comic surface. The grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," for example, like Mr. Head, may be a fool. We might laugh at her pretensions, her prejudices, her transparent selfishness. But this laughter turns to queasiness when her family is taken into the woods and shot and she herself is facing imminent death. Our emotional state at that moment, in fact, is immensely complex. She may be flawed but we've seen the world through her eyes; we know her. Suddenly it dawns on us that, unlike a first person character, the grandmother can actually be killed. The Misfit expresses our basest sentiments: "She would of been a good woman, said the Misfit, "if it had been someone to shoot her every minute of her life." (Complete Stories, 133)
The fact is, no matter how much we might want to dislike the "I" in a particular story, when "I" gets in trouble, it's impossible for us to remain immune to his/her appeal for our pity. We also know that "I" will almost always be rescued. Death is a wall beyond which a first person character can't venture (unless you're in a Robertson Davies novel). The situation is not quite the same with third-person. The grandmother is killed and we're left with the Misfit, smoking gun in hand. The gap between the reader and the grandmother, so small at first, becomes huge and unbridgeable. At the beginning this tiny schism is filled with our smug laughter. In the end, the schism has become a chasm of terror and pity.
Joseph Conrad, whom O'Connor greatly admired, once expressed the writer's purpose in a nearly perfect way. The fiction writer's only concern, Conrad wrote in his introduction to his novella, "The Nigger of the Narcissus," is with "the aspects of matter" and "the facts of life." (Tales of Land and Sea, 106) Limited as we are by our five senses, the task becomes "to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing forth the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect" (105). Only in this way, adds O'Connor in an essay in her book on writing, Mystery and Manners, are we granted "a glimpse of truth." (80) Despite her personal piety, O'Connor wrote: "A fiction writer discovers that he himself can not move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth." (146) In Christian terms, one can chronicle the Fall, but not the Ascension: "Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust. If you're afraid of getting dusty, then you shouldn't write fiction." (68) O'Connor's Christian views remain subterranean throughout all her fiction. But they are present nonetheless, arguably the most important aspects of her writing. These are "glimpses" of the invisible, much as the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, such as Thoreau and Emerson, saw God "peeking out" through the laws of nature. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," before she's shot dead, the Grandmother "blesses" her murderer, calling him one of her children. In The Violent Will Bear it Away, the teenager Tarwater "accidentally" baptizes the retarded boy before drowning him. In "The Circle in the Fire," the woods are set ablaze as a symbol of Mrs. Cope's foolish pride, her arrogant belief that the woods belong to her.
This use of the subterranean to express deeply held moral views seems to work most effectively in the third-person limited p.o.v. First person characters are too self-involved; their moral views inevitably bubble up into consciousness like everything else. This is particularly true in modern fiction, where the narcissistic first-person narrator reigns supreme. The unreliable first-person narrator, one of the great devices in fiction, seems to have fallen out of fashion. Jason Compton's story in the third part of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is the classic unreliable narrator, in which his above-surface words contradict his true moral positions. Reaching further back, Dostoevski's narrator in Notes From Underground was probably the prototype of the unself-aware first-person character. Even his first words "I am a sick man..." turn out to be not quite true.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction describes the third-person limited p.o.v. as essentially the same as first-person, only substituting the pronouns "he" or "she" for "I". This definition is insufficient and inaccurate. "I" addresses the reader, "he" or "she" does not. Unlike "I," "he" or "she" never asks for our sympathy or our approval of anything. "He" or "she" is not even aware of us. John Gardner goes on to decry the "pettiness and unseemly familiarity" of third-person limited. (157) Perhaps another way of saying this is that the third-person limited, the "subjective" third-person p.o.v., often tends toward misanthropy, in the form of black irony and gallows humor, terror and violence. This is true in many authors' work, including, of course, O'Connor's and McCarthy's.
Why should this be so? This is an interesting and troubling question, for which there is no easy answer. Perhaps when trying to perceive another person's intimate experience of life, a writer emphasizes the negative because it's somehow safer ground. Or because it's the only common ground of which a writer can be sure. Conversely, why would the first-person allow a writer to be more balanced? Are we reluctant to ascribe happiness or benevolence to others? Is there some unconscious need to project our hostility toward the world through someone else's personality, rather than sullying the I-guy?
Most people's experience of life is pretty brutal. There is a dearth of grace and hope and happy endings in everyday life. But this negative slant is prevalent in Realism as a whole, regardless of the p.o.v. Flannery O'Connor once told an interviewer: "I think it is easier to come out with something negative because it is just nearer to fallen nature. You have to strain yourself for the other: strenuously, too." (Magee, 26)
How is it, then, that O'Connor and McCarthy are able to elicit our sympathy for their often dark, unattractive, unsympathetic characters? Why is it, for example, that at the end of "The Artificial Nigger," we not only know Mr. Head well, but care deeply for him, although he is still what he was in the beginning, a poor, ignorant racist? Or that near the end of his string of horrible crimes in Child of God, Lester Ballard weeps and we feel pity for him? The answer may lie in the authors' use of both unvarnished Realism and the subjective point of view, which forces the reader to inhabit the minds of their characters and to empathize with them. For O'Connor, this is, in a sense, a profound use of her Christian view of life. For McCarthy, the ultimate moral answer is quite different.
O'Connor's stories were perhaps frequently bleak and violent, but below the surface, they often evoke the Christian ethic of compassion and empathy, redemption and ascension. This is not true of Cormac McCarthy. It would be very difficult to imagine fiction any bloodier or more despairing than, say, Blood Meridian or Outer Dark. In novel after novel he describes a world without God, without hope, without grace, human beings cut off forever from Paradise, wandering aimlessly in a metaphorical desert, surrounded by unthinking (and thinking) brutality, cruelty and carnage. The power of this bleak vision is even greater because McCarthy also uses the third-person limited p.o.v., which makes the violence always up close and personal. McCarthy's moral vision seems to be pre-Christian, which may add to the Old Testament quality of his prose ("Acts have their being in the witness. Without him, who can speak of it?" (The Crossing, 216) In general, McCarthy rejects notions of compassion or grace. The deeper he looks into nature and into human history, the combination of which reaches its pinnacle (or nadir) in Blood Meridian, the harsher his conclusions become. "The kid" in Blood Meridian learns genocide as a form of vocation, as the way things are and will always be. He begins as an orphan, raw and unformed and is turned into a killing machine. The incestuous brother and sister in Outer Dark -- illiterate, ignorant, animal-like -- survive only by separating and forging ahead alone into a hostile world. Along the way, all of McCarthy's characters experience epiphanies as victims, perpetrators and, above all, witnesses.
But why use inarticulate witnesses? The answer may be a key to understanding one of the important aspects of O'Connor's and McCarthy's writing. Sometimes it's the fiction writer's job to give voice to the voiceless, to articulate this gathered conscious and unconscious knowledge, this insight into the nature and mystery of existence which takes residence in instinct and intuition, beneath the cacaphony of words we live by. Writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy have done this as a matter of routine. Perhaps they choose them because these inarticulate characters are already closer to that inchoate knowledge. They're more apt to listen to what is in their bones than those of us engrossed in our incessant bourgeois wordsmaking. Articulate or not, educated or not, their characters see and intuit deeply into all that is around them -- perhaps, in times of great fear or peril, as deeply and as unconsciously as wild animals, who seem to know their true place in Nature's realm far better than humans. This is one of Cormac McCarthy's most consistent themes.
This brings up the question: which gets closer to the truth of a scene, the subjective or the objective? Or is there really anything anymore that one can call "objective?" At any rate, it's questionable whether the omniscient p.o.v., or the voice of disembodied memory, or any other such supernatural consciousness can get at the truth, as deeply as the subjective p.o.v. The death of Tolstoy's God means we are stuck with the subjective, what we as humans perceive with our five feeble senses, augmented by whatever faint candlepower we can muster from our brains.
Artists use the subjective to express their sensual experiences of the world. O'Connor and McCarthy's ability to describe nature is absolutely uncanny, almost unearthly. Mustn't the drive to describe so well, with such intensity, reflect a deep hunger to see into the truth of things, as Conrad demanded of himself and other fiction writers? One can feel that yearning in their writing; it's palpable and ferocious. Perhaps the despair and violence in their fiction is at least in part because of their knowledge of the limitations of words, and the knowledge that all we have are words.
That McCarthy is conscious of the limitations of words, and that he despairs over it, is reflected in this passage from The Crossing, in the words of one of the many bedraggled wisemen Billy Parham encounters during his wanderings through Mexico:
The world has no name, he said. The names of the cerros and the sierras and the desert exist only on maps. We name them that we do not lose our way. Yet it was because the way was lost to us already that we have made those names. The world can not be lost. We are the ones. And it is because these names and these coordinates are our own naming that they can not save us. That they can not find for us the way again. (548)
This understanding of the limits of words, the descriptive "names" and "coordinates" he himself uses so brilliantly, is also reflected in McCarthy's idiosyncratic style, in which he doesn't use quotation marks nor much in the way of other common punctuation marks (such as commas and parentheses) and leaves entire conversations in untranslated Spanish. In his novels we are treated to masses of prose which seem, just glancing at the words on the page, nearly untouched by human hands, as if all of it -- the physical descriptions of characters, the descriptions of nature, the physical action, the conversations, the thoughts, the dreams -- are part of one contiguous landscape, or consciousness, with each of the elements barely distinguishable from the others.
When John Gardner complained of the "unseemly familiarity," of the third-person limited point of view, he missed a critical point. The reason we come to care about so many of O'Connor's and McCarthy's unsympathetic characters is because by the end of the stories, we have seen the world the way they see it. We have been put in the shoes of someone who has not shouted for our attention and sympathy, like a first-person character, but has remained aloof and stubbornly unself-conscious throughout. In a sense, this is a variation of the writing cliche about "showing" instead of "telling." A first-person narrator tells us what he or she experiences, a third-person narrator is shown in the experience. The ugliness, the terror, the meanness of life, but also the tenderness, the grace, the hope, the love - all of this is contained in the way the character perceives the world, and how the writer, standing just behind him or her, transcribes these perceptions as the story moves along. At the end of "The Artificial Nigger," we understand why the moonlight "dignified everything" in Mr. Head's shabby shack that particular morning, before his long, adventuresome day in the city. At the end of McCarthy's Child of God, we don't forgive Lester Ballard his crimes, but we have seen and felt the loneliness and barrenness of his existence. We have no pollyanna-ish illusions, either, about Mr. Head or Ballard. Rather, we know what makes them tick, we know what makes them human, we know what makes them the same as us.
Conrad, Joseph. Tales of Land and Sea. Garden City: Hanover House, 1953.
Faulkner, William. "Spotted Horses." The Faulkner Reader. New York: Random House, 1948.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Magee, Rosemary M., ed. Conversations with Flannery O'Connor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. New York: Vintage, 1973.
---. The Crossing. New York: Vintage, 1994.
O'Connor, Flannery. "The Artificial Nigger." The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
---. "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
---. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.